Sunday, October 20, 2013

Conversion, Part One

I was raised in a household that attended a local Presbyterian church; so local, in fact, that on nice weather days we would walk the five minutes or so to get to Sunday school. Perhaps that's why I'm so spoiled! To this day I long to live so close to a parish that I could easily walk there!

I wouldn't say we were theologically Calvinist - you know who those people are - they can cite various writings of Calvin or at least his theology and we were never like that. In fact, it wasn't until I became a Catholic when I found out what Calvin actually believed! So, we weren't big on theological discussion or debate - we went to that church because we liked it. My parents liked the people there, as well as the pastor, the Rev. Emanuel Emanuel (yes, that's his name). When we lived in Waretown, we made the commute, but (as I said earlier) when we moved to Forked River (Four-ked River) the commute couldn't be beat!

Although we never prayed as a family, nor read the Bible together, we often attended church together - especially on the holidays. Even today, I look back with fond memories to those "candlelight services" we would have every Christmas Eve - the lights of the sanctuary would be dimmed and the candle sconces on all the walls would be lit so that a majority of the light came from them. Then we'd have a worship service filled with old Christmas carols - I think we even had communion that night, but I can't really remember. This particular church would have communion once a quarter (I just found out this weekend that the Presbyterian Church USA encourages communion as often as every Sunday, but I never saw that). Communion was seen symbolically and consisted of little squares of white bread and little plastic "shot glasses" of grape juice. What I did think was cool was that whenever we celebrated "the Lord's Supper", everything was brought out on these beautiful silver trays and platters - these were some of the only items that survived a massive forest fire that destroyed the old Presbyterian church back in 1930.

My mom was vigilant that we went to Sunday school every week. No matter how much we complained and screamed and whined, off we went! Plus, she would never let us go in shorts or shirts with pictures on them - we were going to church and had to dress accordingly. Perhaps my mom needs to teach Catholics a thing or two! Anyway, it seemed to have paid off because every year we'd get an attendance pin, celebrating our achievement, and I got them all! They all connected to one another and hung like a military medal - it was so cool!

Eventually the church would get a young couple as co-pastors, the Revs. John and Sally Gilbert. They were very nice people and I would talk to John very often. Sometimes I'd volunteer to help around the church and once I even helped him install a window unit a/c in an elderly woman's house. Years later, I did the same thing at Sea Cadets - we had a church service on a Sunday during boot camp and they asked for a volunteer to help the minister clean up after worship; my hand went up. I don't think I ever saw myself as a minister, but I sure enjoyed helping them with stuff. I guess I always enjoyed being a pastor's assistant - nowadays I'm an altar server.

As I was saying, I can't for the life of me remember if I ever learned anything about what it meant to be a Presbyterian - even at Sunday school or during my classes to become a member. All I know is that we loved Jesus, sang hymns, and read the Bible. When you were really young you went to "the cottage", which was a small wooden building next to the church (now it's all one building). Here is where you learned all those little worship songs like, "The B-I-B-L-E", "This Little Light of Mine", "Deep and Wide", and "Jesus Loves Me". Of course, many of these songs involved us making hand gestures or something so that we'd find it fun. After a quick Bible lesson or art project, we'd be allowed to go outside and play on their playground - a very modest swingset, sandbox, and a couple of other toys. Once you were old enough, you could attend Sunday school in the church's basement, called Fellowship Hall. The day would start out with everyone sitting in chairs facing a very small stage that had a piano on it. When I was older my little brother and I would often get there before anyone else, so we'd turn all the lights on and wait for people to show up. When I was really young, a tremendously nice man named Mr. Baker would lead our morning prayers. He'd lead us in prayers and a hymn or two, like "Blessed Assurance" or "How Great Thou Art". Then he'd give us some sort of lesson and perhaps there were a couple more hymns and prayers before we'd be sent to our various classrooms (Fellowship Hall was surprisingly big, with even a large kitchen). I don't remember many of my earliest teachers, but I do remember the ones I had as I was getting older. Again, these classes mainly involved Bible lessons - I can't really remember if they involved Biblical interpretation - this is what that verse means - but I do remember learning the stories themselves, stories I am still very fond of: the Garden of Eden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Joseph being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, Moses and the Exodus, and all the stories from the Gospels. When we were younger, sometimes the lessons involved artwork projects, but when we were older it just involved discussion. I remember sometimes we'd read from the Bible and then talk about it, wondering what we would have done if WE saw the Burning Bush or watched Lazarus rise from the dead.

The people from the church are lovingly burned into my memory - all the various teachers and youth group leaders, all the people in the pews that would say hi to us every Sunday, and all the people who would try to get us to behave when we were practicing for the Christmas pageant (that was like herding cats). There are several people I remember more that others, such as the Williams' and Mrs. Middlesdorf. Mrs. Williams loved us like we were her own family and I will never forget her. Mr. and Mrs. Williams were such sweet people to all of us. I don't really remember when Mr. Williams died, but I do remember when Mrs. Williams' health was really starting to fade; that was incredibly sad. When she was younger she always had time for all of us and was a sweet grandmotherly figure. I still have an old Gideon New Testament where she wrote in 1984, "To Jason Edwards, whom the Lord loves and will be one of his best angels." I'll never get rid of that Bible, no matter how badly it's falling apart. If memory serves me correctly, she was the person responsible for my getting up in front of the congregation and reading some of the first chapter of St. John's Gospel during church. I remember reading it a lot because my dad said it was his favorite of the four Gospels - little did I realize until years later that in the "old" Latin Mass, each Mass ends with the reading of part of the first chapter of John! I guess God was preparing me for later on in life!

As for Mrs. Middlesdorf, she was a trooper! By the time she was my teacher I was a teenager - her classes were very dry and the students started to disappear one-by-one until I was the only one left every Sunday. Eventually it became like our own little club and she would often ask me at the end of the lesson, "So, what would you like to talk about next Sunday?" and we'd discuss what part of the Bible to go over. She would often bring in some food from the Bible so I would know what dates or figs tasted like. At one point, when we still had a fairly large class size, she put together a Passover meal so that we'd understand better what the Jews believed and what Jesus was celebrating at the "Last Supper". She always tried to help us understand the Bible with real-world examples. She even took a massive risk by teaching me about other religions - I don't think she ever went into Catholicism or Orthodoxy (not that we're another religion, but you know how some Christians feel about us) - she did, however, at least teach me about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Shintoism. We even went to a local synagogue one night and heard them read from the Torah and talk a little about their faith and the history of Jews in that region of New Jersey. She never did this to teach me that all religions were alike or that it didn't matter what you believed - she taught me these things to show me that the pursuit of God was universal and that I shouldn't be ignorant of other people's faiths because how was I supposed to relate to them and talk to them if I didn't respect them? She really shaped how I saw non-Christian faiths and I am forever grateful. I pray that the Lord has mercy on the souls of all the people from the Forked River Presbyterian Church whom have passed on and grants them eternal rest - there is no doubt in my mind that they loved the Lord with all their hearts and believed they were doing his will, and I don't think it was ever done without a ton of love.

When I was growing up I don't think I ever heard an anti-Catholic word out of the mouths of my parents or anyone at the Presbyterian church - there were occasionally comments made to explain that we did things differently, but I never heard any of the garbage that I hear today from some of the non-Catholic world (the pope is the antichrist, Rome is the whore of Babylon, Catholics aren't Christians, etc.).

Going to church itself was interesting. Whenever Dad took us, we'd sit in the very back, but whenever Mom took us we'd sit about midway up the church pews. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the Presbyterians, they have an actual liturgy - Calvin was a believer in "a church" and thought there should be a liturgy. So, we'd all have our church bulletins which contained the liturgy for the day. During worship there would be an Introit (a Catholic word I never knew they used), a prayer of the people we'd recite, various hymns and Bible readings, and then the part I dreaded - the sermon! Later on they started to throw a "Children's Moment" in there, too, especially in the summer when there would be no Sunday school, but the parents would still take their kids to church instead. Then there would be the collection and several more hymns and prayers before dismissal (like in Catholic worship, whenever we did have communion it would be saved until after the collection). There was always a choir and I enjoyed that Rev. John was always singing in the choir's procession at the start of every service. We always had organ music. I remember the organist as this short old lady with a laugh, almost a cackle, that could fill the church - she was a lover of life and I always saw her happy. I was, and still am, blown away that she could work all the pedals, keys, buttons, and switches to make such a beautiful and wonderful sound every Sunday. Since we were one of those denominations that sprung directly out of the "reformation", we still had Lent, Advent wreaths, and manger scenes, so none of that was a surprise when I would eventually start attending the Episcopal and Catholic churches.

There's really a ton that I could write here, but I just don't think you would read it all. My time at the Presbyterian church was wonderful and I enjoy my fond memories of it. One of the most exciting things I did as a kid was be allowed to ring the church bell several minutes before church began. Sometimes I was so excited that I'd ask again and again for 15 or 20 minutes, "How about now? Can I ring it now?" Whenever the windows were opened in the spring you could hear the bell ringing and I just loved it! I could write about my time in the youth group with our pool parties, Christmas parties, Bible study classes, and summertime tubing in Barnegat Bay. I could write about my baptism (I was 14) or when I was "confirmed" as a full member of the church. I could write about how I was allowed to count the amount of congregants and write them down in a book we kept in the back of the church. There are too many warm and happy memories to tell, really.

However, as with all kids, when I got older there seemed to be problems of faith that were bubbling up to the surface. I started to see the divisions in Christianity. I started to hear explanations that really didn't convince me about doubts I was having about Biblical interpretation. As a teenager, I started to get really bored with church. All of these things started to come to a head as I approached my 18th year and I would like to shift gears and discuss that period of my life, the time of "doubt and drought", for it really impacted my search for truth.